The Art & Science of Growing a Ministry

When giant timber bamboo grows, it will rise out of the earth an astounding 90 feet in only 60 days, but only after three years of first patiently watering…dirt. This was a fact passed onto the students of our Summer Leadership Studio by the imitable Ben Sand, CEO of Portland Leadership Foundation and our instructor for the course. For me, and I suspect the others in attendance, this seemed an apt and motivational metaphor to frame the hard work ahead of us in the studio and beyond. While each of us arrived passionate about a vision, the studio is equipping us to dig in to the hard, unglamorous, near-invisible preparatory work required to see the vision someday spring to life and thrive.

The bamboo metaphor also begs reflection on the nature of the ministry seeds we each tend. During the course of our short week together we got to know one another more deeply through class discussion and conversation over shared meals. And it soon became clear we carry seeds shaped by personal pain and triumph, seeds formed in the crucible moments of our life stories. Challenges that could have taken each of us down are instead met with God’s love and turn the substance of our suffering into the raw material we feel called to use to shift our corner of the world a little closer to the Kingdom of God.

To aid this work, the studio week was full of practical, personal, experiential and theological lessons, passed along not only by the instructors of the course but fellow students as well. In attendance we had the VP of a denomination perpetually dropping quiet wisdom bombs, a criminal defense attorney angling to disrupt unquestioned aspects of the criminal justice status quo, a mother of eight sensing the time is right to birth something new in her city, a former environmental activist aiming to construct a new spiritual habitat for post-Christian Portlanders, and all of us searching for how to take the next steps in turning our vision into reality.

And in this quest, Ben Sand did not disappoint. He generously, transparently shared the best of the tools he has developed across ten years of experiments run within a dozen or more initiatives that have both failed and been wildly successful. He introduced us to three directors of PLF initiatives who spoke with passion about their work. As they spoke we learned more about PLF, but also just how powerful a mission becomes when in the hands of team players willing to take the baton and run with it. A highlight of the experience was a field trip to the Department of Human Services where we heard Ben deliver a rousing TED-style talk to hundreds on staff of what we soon learned is a massively under-resourced, over-burdened government agency. But through Ben’s eyes, this single agency becomes a portal to the people we Christians are called to serve.

What he sees at DHS is leverage – the work of gathering, sorting, and attempting to meet the needs of suffering people is already being undertaken here. PLF has found a massive platform through which to scale their mission to elevate under-served youth. Ben is a master at identifying points of leverage. Through his example we have been challenged to find the points of leverage within our own ministry context. Who are the partners we can leverage for collective impact? What is the logic we can construct to create competitive advantage? What is the impact data we must collect to develop social market capital? These are the questions we have been tasked with answering over the course of the next several weeks. The answers will surely provide the framework by which our ideas will climb farther, faster and achieve maximum impact in service of the call God has planted in our hearts.
Rachel Rose Nelson is pursuing a Master of Arts in Ministry with a Specialization in Leadership at Portland Seminary. She is also Founder & President of Her Worth International, a startup ministry equipping women to build Freedom Businesses that employ those in poverty around the world.

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